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FCA's March sales rise 2 percent, Ford and GM fall

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Sales of new cars and trucks slowed last month thanks to fewer March selling days and prolonged cold weather, but strong demand for pickups and SUVs bodes well for sales in the second quarter of 2015 and beyond, analysts say.

Automakers sold 1.5 million vehicles last month, a 0.6 percent increase from a year ago, according to Autodata. Detroit's automakers posted mixed sales results. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles reported a 1.7 percent sales gain — its 60th consecutive month of year-over-year gains — while sales at Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. both fell.

Analysts had expected soft sales numbers in relation to March 2014, when a wave of shoppers picked up new vehicles after an extraordinarily snowy winter.

"Months like this are no reason to panic, rather a good sign of a healthy industry," said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at Autotrader.

As has been the case in recent months, most automakers struggled to sell cars. GM's car sales dropped 20.8 percent and Ford's car sales fell 11.6 percent. FCA's car sales rose 11.5 percent, thanks mostly to strong gains for the Chrysler brand; Fiat brand sales fell 5.1 percent.

But it was a different story for trucks and SUVs.

March represented Ford's best commercial van sales month since 1994, and five of the six Ford vehicles that posted sales gains were either trucks, SUVs or crossovers. Total sales of GM trucks, including pickups, vans and SUVs, were up 14 percent, the Detroit automaker said.

And FCA sales were buoyed by Jeep SUVs like the Cherokee and Patriot compact SUV. The brand posted its best sales month ever, up 23 percent.

"Trucks and SUVs remained a bright spot for the industry with solid gains for most automakers overall," said Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said in a statement.

Demand for Ford's new F-150 aluminum-bodied pickup continues to be strong, the automaker said. About 29 percent of its truck sales last month were made up of the new 2015 model, although total F-Series sales fell 4.6 percent compared to the same month a year ago.

On a conference call with reporters and analysts, Mark LaNeve, Ford's vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said he's not concerned about the sales drops this month.

"March of a year ago was a five-weekend month, plus coming out of really tough weather over extended period of time," he said. "So I think last year's March might have been a little more buoyant than maybe normal in terms of year-over-year comparisons."

Among other automakers, Hyundai sales rose 12 percent — its best ever sales month — and Toyota sales rose 4.9 percent, driven by an 11.5 spike in light truck sales.

Toyota's growth was also due to big discounts in the showroom as the Japanese fiscal year ended.

"Toyota's sales growth was among the best in the industry last month, but it came at the cost of lower transaction prices and a big bump in incentive spending compared to March 2014," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "This is common for Japanese automakers because the fiscal year ends in March and there's always a push to end it with strong sales."

The spring months should see an uptick in vehicle sales, analysts say.

Dave Winslow, vice president of digital strategy at Dealertrack Technologies, a company that provides on-demand software to the auto industry, said the site saw a 20 percent bump in the number of visitors looking for cars.

"Consumers are still shopping for vehicles," he said. "Based on the strong traffic growth we saw in March, we see a strong rebound."

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